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After only 15 months, the Office of Environment and Heritage has released comments received on its whole-of-government NSW koala strategy. Perhaps the most important of these, at least for the south coast, are those from the South East Timber Association (SETA).  Not surprisingly the comments are consistent with Forestry’s, arguably bizarre, understanding of both forests and koalas. From this perspective, all forests are killed by wildfire and then grow back. So all of the trees are the same age, all of the time.

This idea appears to stem from some Victorian and southern NSW forests where various ash eucalyptus dominate. Unlike most eucalyptus species, ash types are more likely to die in a wildfire. However, this isn’t always the case and ash can frequently be found with other species.  For example, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and Parks, recently translocated 600 koalas from French Island, with 400 of these going to forests around Kinglake. The forests around Kinglake were burnt in the 2009 bushfires, but clearly not all the trees died.

Aside from the predicable understanding about forests and koalas, that they prefer regrowth forests, the SETA submission included the logging history map below. This map is quite different to previous logging histories.

Also among the comments is a submission from Coast Watchers, a conservation group based in the Eurobodalla shire. According to these comments the last confirmed sighting of a koala in the shire was at Nerrigundah in 2013.

Forestry Corporation has recently provided detail of the compartments, totaling 9.700 hectares, it burnt in Moruya and Dampier State Forests. As indicated in the map below, circles with green crosses are koala records and the burning (blue hatch) was north east of Nerrigundah. The NSW government has developed and approved a burning plan for the Murrah Flora reserves, although details are yet to be made public.

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It is now just over three months since comments were closed on draft flora reserve management plan. While it’s disappointing that the public are yet to be informed about any outcome, perhaps more disappointing is the lack of any sign of forest management that isn’t locked into the unsustainable past.

Looking north from the Murrah the sky is grey with smoke, from the thousands of hectares of forest that have been deliberately burned. One of these fires, lit by the NPWS, has apparently spread to adjacent forest in National Park and on private land, so far degrading another 300 ha.

To the south the NPWS lit up 120 ha in Bournda NP, within the black circle on FCNSW’s predisposition to dieback map below. The particular area is referred to as the ‘Sandy Creek Strategic Fire Advantage Zone’ and was last burned in 2005-06. On this occasion the very lame justification for the burn is to ‘reduce the spread of wildfire’. There appears to be no consideration of the animals, the ongoing dry weather or the fact that without substantive rainfall, most forests will again turn brown, within a few weeks.

Meanwhile down in Victoria, Friends of the Leadbeaters Possum (FOTLP), have successfully applied for an interlocutory application, to stop Vicforests logging several coupes in the central highlands.
FOTLPs application was based on the failure to undertake the required reviews of the relevant Regional Forest Agreement. A trial on the matter will commence on 25 February 2019, for a period of three weeks.

Things are a little different up here, where the flora reserve management plan has to be consistent with the Forestry Act (2012). In particular part 25 clause 2 that requires ” . . .The object of any such scheme is to be the preservation of native flora on the flora reserve.”

It seems an appropriate time to investigate the potential to challenge the plan/scheme, given the different views on the management required to preserve native flora.

Widely reported over the past week has been the fire, thought to be deliberately lit, in and around the Holsworthy army base, south west of Sydney. Some 3,450 hectares has been burnt and koalas escaping the fire have found found wandering in the adjacent suburbs and one was apparently rescued in the base.

Interestingly, back in 2012 a summary of environmental assessments was undertaken for the Department of Defence, when it proposed moving infrastructure at Moorebank to Holsworthy. According to this summary evidence of koalas was not found and if there were koalas they would be ‘ . . . unlikely to be an important koala population”.

More recently on the north coast, the NSW Department of Primary Industries has been employing digital recorders to find koalas. According to an ABC report spokesperson Dr Brad Law said ” . . . We’ve got two main aims. One is to look at the status of koalas across the northeast forests, [The other] is how is their level of occupancy responds to different levels of timber harvest and time since harvest — so we want to look at the effects of logging on koalas.”

Brad went on to say “They’ve been surprised by what the sound recordings have revealed. In the 1990s, there had been a spotlighting survey for koalas over roughly the same study area in northeast NSW. Close to 200 sites were surveyed and koalas were only detected on about 5 per cent of sites using spotlighting. But [using the song meters] we’re finding about 80 per cent of the sites we’ve got koalas.”
So it would appear that logging has proceeded over the past 20 years in areas with koalas and the intention is to continue this management.

Meanwhile on the far south coast, around the area of the red circle on the map, Forests NSW has been undertaking extensive ‘fuel reduction burns’ over some 6,000 hectares. While forestry believe this will make the forests healthy, it also gets rid of koalas.

Whatever the reasons for this management, if one were looking for other koalas on the south coast this would be the place to start. So the notion that forestry found evidence of koalas cannot be excluded.

Having had a bit of a look at the areas burnt in the flora reserve and toward Tathra, a surprising outcome is the relatively small areas where tree canopies burned. As indicated in the satellite image below, leaves in the tree canopies have been scorched, but not consumed by the fire. In essence the outcome is much like a hot fuel reduction burn. 

The big difference between this fire and a canopy fire is the flame height and the temperature it creates both within and in front of the fire. Typically, a crown fire can heat the air at the front of the flames to 800 °C (1,470 °F). Attempting to fight a fire under these conditions is impossible, so it seems fire fighters and local residents saved most of the town because it wasn’t too hot or too windy.

Had the weather conditions been more extreme, as with the Black Saturday fires, back in 2009, it seems likely that more houses would have been destroyed and lives lost. The houses that were destroyed were all built prior to the bush fires codes introduced in 2009. None of the houses built after the new codes were destroyed.

There is still no talk about the fate of koalas in the area, although it seems unlikely any animals survived in the burned areas. A bulldozer and chainsaws have been used to push over or cut down dozens of trees deemed ‘dangerous’, in the flora reserve. Not surprisingly most of these were large mature trees.

 

As reported in the Eden Magnet last week, Forestry Corporation and the Eden Aboriginal Land Council  planned  a ” . . . contemporary cultural burn using traditional fire practices at East Boyd State Forest near Eden . . . The cultural burn will begin on Wednesday, April 4 with a traditional ceremony and continue for several days, with the aim of improving forest health and access to country for cultural purposes.”

The arrangement is clearly a big deal for Forestry, with a member of its Aboriginal Partnerships team, the Strategic Projects and Programs Leader and Forestry Corporation’s south coast Protection Supervisor, Julian Armstrong, all having a say.

According to Julian “For safe hazard reduction burns, we need to act when it’s not too hot and dry or too cool and damp and when the wind isn’t too strong.” While the issue of dryness appears to be a lower priority, the article suggests updates on the 750 hectare burn would be available on the RFS – ‘Fires near me’ website’.

The fire was on the website for two days and then disappeared, so either it burned the area very quickly or was postponed.

The cause of the fire that destroyed 65 homes in and around Tathra is being put down to a tree falling on power lines, along Reedy creek road. To date there has been no mention of the Flora reserve, although the fire started near the south west corner of the Tanja section.

As indicted on blurry map below, showing recent koala records and the Forestry Corporation’s incomplete logging history, the fire traveled straight down the Bega River. Aided by 38 degree heat and strong north westerly winds, it jumped the river and took off toward Tathra.

Under these conditions there is nothing fire fighters can do to stop a fire so the town was mostly evacuated. I say mostly because many stayed behind, successfully defending their homes and no-one was killed or seriously injured.

Unfortunately roads into Tanja forest remain closed, while more trees are cut down for safety reasons. However, it is clear that locations where koalas were active, back in 2012, were burnt. While trusting there will be some effort to ascertain their fate, the fire has led to the inevitable concerns about the ‘bush’ and the threat it poses.

A coronal inquiry will be examining aspects of the fire, although whether its scope will be adequate remains unclear. For example, when Europeans invaded this country, there was tall open forest, not bush. This new bush generally has a contiguous fuel load from the ground to the tree tops. Consequently, it seems likely that convection currents and the capacity to both produce and more rapidly spread burning embers is increased.

Clearly the major reason for this threatening bush is decades of mismanagement. However, there will be the inevitable calls for more broad acre burning, even though it won’t help.
Similarly, I’m anticipating, should no evidence of koalas be found, that post fire salvage logging will be proposed, so the timber isn’t wasted.

On a positive note the ABC reported on the Federal government concerns that renewing the RFAs may lead to a legal challenge, because the information is old. From another perspective the information was old when the RFAs were agreed and nothing has changed since then.

Earlier this week, on ABC radio, Eurobodalla conservationist Mike Thompson spoke about the flora reserves and koalas. It seems Mike was responding to my most recent letter to the editor titled ‘Koala extinction plan on track’. Like most of the conservation movement on the south coast, Mike didn’t refer to dying forests.

Rather and among other things, he mentioned our local state parliament member, Andrew Constance. In particular Andrew’s statement that the flora reserves could be logged, in the future.

Mike suggested the best option for koalas is turning the reserves into National Park. If this happened, the management boards for Gulaga and Biamanga NPs may have an influence. Unfortunately, the boards don’t appear to have much influence over management in current National Parks.

What’s arguably more important, in the short term, are the details of the final working plan for the reserves. These may provide the leverage to modify the Regional Forest Agreements, given the federal koala listing. Naturally, there is no certainty and it will require going where the majority of the conservation prefer not to go. Particularly the dieback issue in National Parks and the associated inadequacy of state government forest regulations and management.

 

As reported in the Bega District News, on Thursday a workshop was held in an effort to re-introduce Aboriginal cultural burning. It brought together tablelands and coastal Aboriginals and there was a strong turnout of NSW government agencies. These included Local Land Services, Rural Fire Service, NSW Parks and Wildlife and the Forestry corporation.

Three sites have been selected at Wallagoot, Bermagui and Narooma, with the burns planned over four days in autumn.

While supportive of burning in grassy ecosystems, because there is evidence it increases the diversity of native grasses and herbaceous species. The article refers to observations indicating the ‘ bush is dense with native invasive species’ and burning will be undertaken in ‘different vegetation types’.

My concern is that the most influential of the agencies, Forestry Corp, believes burning is the cure for all forest health issues in all forest types. So it would be a shame if true cultural burning was somehow co-opted, to fit forestry’s single aim, further degrading all forests.

Similarly it would be a shame if such an outcome led to another falling out between Aboriginals. Apparently depicted in the painting above, is a battle back in 1825 at Barrabaroo (Yuin Aboriginal for ‘Fighting Ground’) Creek near Cobargo. Early settlers counted 70 bodies left on the grassy flood plains, after the battle between tablelands and coastal Aborigines.

As reported in the Bega District News, ” . . . The National Parks and Wildlife Service is hosting two sessions of what they describe as “open houses”, in January for locals and visitors to learn more about the recently created Murrah Flora Reserves.” The first of these sessions was held last Saturday at the Tanja Hall.

Unlike the previous koala information session held at the hall and funded by the Federal Government, there weren’t may cars outside. Upon entering the hall and also unlike the previous session, there wasn’t much information available either. At the time there four people attending the session, two OE&H employees and the most recent NPWS South Coast Director Kane Weeks.

There were three maps on the wall, a couple of A4 print outs on koala monitoring and attempts to grow trees, along with one research paper about fire.

One of the maps showed the vast area planned for regular burning. Another the most recent modeled koala use areas and another indicating areas with a larger volume of vertical fuel load.
Kane Weeks asked me what I thought about the burning proposal. I suggested that all of it has been logged and burned and in the process lost hundreds of tonnes of soil per hectare. The vertical fuel load comes from trees that, among other things, drop large amounts of litter that aids in restoring the soils.

Burning these areas eliminates the litter, so the process of soil restoration has to start again.

According to the final draft for the flora reserves, these matters are too complex. So I wasn’t surprised when Mr Weeks indicated the Forestry Corporation will have the final say on the reserve management plan.

 

Last year I wrote to the OE&H and Forestry Corporation requesting information relevant to management plan.

From Forestry I requested a document, referenced in the plan and titled ” FCNSW 2016, ‘Logging records for Mumbulla, Tanja, Murrah and Bermagui State Forests, Reserve numbers 187, 188, 189 and 190’, unpublished records compiled by the Forestry Commission of NSW, Eden”

This is the response Forestry sent on January 6.

Hi Robert
It would be best to check this information with the Office of Environment and Heritage who have prepared the draft plan. They would be best placed to advise exactly which documents or records this reference refers to.
Regards
Joanna

I did ask about the document at the information session, but they didn’t know either. The OE&H has partly responded to my request, although the logging records document has been added to the list.

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